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Relaxation Technique – proper breathing

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Breathing correctly is nature’s automatic relaxant. When a person takes a deep, diaphragmatic breath the muscles along the back involuntarily relax as part of the movement. Since the shoulder muscles are largely tied into the lumbar support muscles of the spine this effect cascades throughout the upper torso. Additionally, the amount of oxygen in the blood increases, and breath rate slows, both of which enhance concentration and physical performance.

In stressful, high anxiety situations, breathing is usually either too rapid or too shallow. Sometimes people even hold their breath at various stages on a continual basis. This type of breathing increases tension in the muscles, impairs precise muscle control, and reduces concentration ability. Therefore, proper breathing is a core part of every relaxation technique and a good first step towards improving skill in relaxation.

Breath Awareness

Exercise: mimic shallow breathing
Lift your shoulders up as close as you can to your ears. Lift and lower your shoulders and see if it inhibits breathing with your stomach (diaphragm).

If you have never practiced diaphragmatic breathing the start with the first two exercises. If you have practiced it before, or are more aware of your breathing, then you may find it fruitful to skip ahead to further exercises. Before we get started, try the exercise to mimic shallow breathing and get a feel for it. Notice what happens to your breathing. Breathe is forced into the upper chest, becomes rapid and shallow.

Exercise: diaphragm only breathe
Place one hand on your stomach and one on your chest. If your entire breathe is from your diaphragm, then only the hand on your stomach will move, while the hand on the chest remains mostly still.

The first exercise is a complete breath.  Complete breathing begins from the diaphragm, a dome-shaped muscle that separates your stomach cavity from your lung cavity, rather than from the intercostal muscles between your ribs.  Imagine your lungs are divided into three parts.  Fill the bottom third first by breathing down your diaphragm, which will push your stomach out.  Then fill the middle third by allowing your chest to expand and rise.  Finally, fill the top third by lifting your chest and shoulders.  Empty your lungs in opposite order, first the top, the middle, then bottom.  Finally push up/in with your stomach to squeeze a little bit more out (note: the lungs never fully deflate, so don’t try to get all the air out).  Do this several times until you can until it becomes more natural. Eventually drop off the last two steps and breathe only with your diaphragm.

Exercise: sighing exhalation
Take several deep breaths pausing slightly at full intake. Do a controlled exhale along with a deep sigh. Allow the air to have a slight friction in your throat as it goes out, and make it as deep in your throat as you are able. Pay attention to the moment between exhalation and inhalation as a point of maximum relaxation.

The second exercise is to sigh with the exhalation. First it is important to differentiate between holding your breath with your abdomen versus your throat. Breathe in deeply and hold your breath for ten seconds using your throat and chest. Release the breath and notice the ‘pop’ of compressed air that is the very first thing out. Next breathe in deeply and hold your breath for ten seconds using your stomach and lower-back muscles to keep your abdomen expanded like a big balloon. Keep your throat, chest and shoulders relaxed. Exhale and notice that the breath flows freely out.  By holding your breath using your throat, you mimic putting a cap on a bottle. The muscles below your throat, especially your diaphragm, are free to relax, because you have your lungs ‘capped’.  If you don’t close you throat or hold your chest open, then you must keep your abdominal muscles engaged (stretched out) in order to keep your diaphragm down.  Now that you are holding your breath using your abdomen try the exercise. At the bottom of the breath feel the tension drain from your body. Allow the quietness to spread to your mind as well feel it become still and black (or any color you choose), just as your lungs are empty and still. If you are having trouble, return occasionally to holding your breath at the top for several seconds. Your body is most tense at this point and it is easier to compare and contrast the moment of relaxation at the other end of the breath.

Rhythmic Breathing

After the previous two exercises, one should be more aware of their breath and proper breathing technique.  The next step is to develop control of the muscles used in diaphragmatic breathing. In actuality, the entire abdominal girdle as well as the pelvic floor muscles are all used in breathing. Experiment with trying to feel your lower back and sides expand as well as your stomach when you breath abdominaly. Try slightly tensing your pelvic floor muscles (those used to go to the bathroom in various forms) as you breath in, and relaxing them as you breath out. Rhythmic breathing exercises help establish more conscious control of all these muscles, as well as overall breath control and enhancing the relaxation effect of breath.

Exercise: rhythmic breathing
Inhale on a count of four, hold for a count of four, exhale for a count of four, and pause for a count of four.
Exercise: rhythmic breathing 1:2
Take a full breath and release it. Repeat each of the following sets four times, then move to the next. Inhale on a count of four, exhale on eight. Inhale on five, exhale on ten. Inhale on six, exhale on twelve. Then go back down the series. Inhale on five, exhale on ten. Inhale on four, exhale on eight. Inhale on two exhale on four. If you run out of breath step back a count and try to breath more deeply and exhale more slowly. Try to control the exhale with your lower back as well and add a deep sigh on the exhale if the friction helps you meet the count.
Exercise: rhythmic breathing countdown
Take a full breath and release it. Visualize the number five. Choose relaxing imagery. Use as many senses as possible. As you get more skilled at imagery or this activity you will more easily incorporate more senses. What does it look like? feel like? What does the environment smell like? What sounds are occurring? What is the taste? When you are ready, on the next inhalation, mentally count down to the number four. When you exhale say internally, “I am more relaxed than I was at 5.” If you prefer, breath several times on number 4, or move directly on to number 3 on the next inhalation. Then on the exhalation say internally, “I am more relaxed than I was at 4.” Let yourself feel the relaxation spread from your chest to your limbs, and deeper into the body. Proceed the same way to number 1. It may take anywhere from thirty seconds to over two minutes to so the complete exercise. The important thing is the effect. If you feel totally calm and relaxed at number 1 then it is going well.
Exercise: rhythmic breathing counting
Breath on a similar pattern to simple rhythmic breathing. For example, four counts in, hold four counts, four counts out, pause four counts. Choose a count that works for you and then do it a few times till it becomes natural. Then start counting your breaths. Focus your mind on the rhythm of the breathing, and the relaxation that accompanies each exhalation. Allow the breath to wash away any intruding thoughts. See how high you can count, and then once you lose count start over. Try to allow your mind to be completely subsumed by your breathing rhythm and the count, keeping away any distracting thoughts or sounds. You can try this exercise in any position. However it may help to start by lying on your back on a flat surface. Place your feet a little wider than your hips, let your feet fall to the side. Hands should be laying alongside you with your palms up, as close to or far from your body as is comfortable. You can also place one hand on your upper stomach to enhance your connection to the rhythm.